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The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in Americas
By Michael Eric Dyson
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Reviewed by Nora Rawn
In his latest book, Michael Eric Dyson considers how Barack Obama has been restricted by his very blackness from acting as an advocate for the African-American community. He also illuminates the ways in which Obama's very candidacy broke ranks in the heirarchical civil rights community, whose leaders were torn between a suspicion of the presumptuous upstart and their lack of a mandate to openly critique him for fear of alienating their black supporters. For rank and file black Democrats, breaking ranks in this way was an act of disloyalty; knowing how much opposition Obama faced from the right, they regarded protecting him as an almost sacred obligation. This remained the case even as Obama's language for the black community emphasized the need for personal responsibility, particularly for young black fathers, while sparing the country's white population the blame of centuries of systematic oppression. A chapter on the role of black prophecy versus that of politics is particularly useful in this regard, as it shows the freedom of black preachers and religious civil rights leaders to expose America's mortal sins. This space for open criticism can take more radical stances, and fills an accepted role in American discourse. Whether by temperament or the demands of his position, Obama has had to steer clear of these waters from the very beginning, as the Jeremiad Wright incident made clear early on. The old saw that an African-American has to be twice as good rings true here, except that 'twice as careful' might be a better turn of phrase. Burned early, Obama's presidency took few risks of inviting claims of favoritism or anti-Americanism by offering a strong stance on the uniqueness of the African-American position.
Nevertheless, it is hard not to want to intervene in the President's defense at sometimes; he has fallen short of the example of predecessors like MLK and Malcom X because it is not primarily their footprints he is following, but those of other chief executives. Published before the rise of Trump as a serious presidential candidate and the possible nominee of the Republicans, this recent evolution in American politics nevertheless underlines the deep animus that motivates Obama's opponents. Suspicion of Obama as a non-American and as a Muslim are inextricably bound up with his identity as a black man. It may be to the credit of his biracial heritage that he has managed to hold back from more extreme positions in the face of deep-seated resistance, but his refusal to play into a narrative of otherness, while disappointing for members of the black community and progressives who see the larger picture of institutional racism, is a highly pragmatic one. As Dyson acknowledges, his presidency, for all that it has not accomplished specific redress for civil rights grievances, has nevertheless soared in the few speeches where Obama has addressed the divide in racial relations. Given the moment we live in, and the ugly denial by parts of America that there is white as well as black responsibility implicated in the issues of violence, poverty, and imprisonment in black communities, a more forceful and persistent statement here would be welcome, but it is to the demerit of America's citizenry rather than its leader that there is no open space for this type of discourse. And while Obama's reticence is a let-down for his community, his very existence has led to a robust discourse bysupporter/critics like Jelani Cobb, Ta-Nahesi Coates, and Dyson himself. The very exposure of how difficult race is to speak about does a service to the country--if we can only acknowledge it. Dyson's book fairly analyses all of these perspectives from a privileged position, though in the long run the benefits for racial relations may prove to be greater and more radical than they seem at the present moment.
Out of 10: 7.0